Catholic Groups Challenge Affordable Care Act

     (CN) – Catholic groups across the United States unleashed a barrage of federal lawsuits against the Obama administration, claiming the “Affordable (Health) Care Act” requires them to offer birth-control coverage to employees in violation of their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
     The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, the Catholic University of America and others sued in District of Columbia Federal Court. All citations in this article are taken from that 59-page complaint against the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury.
     Other plaintiffs, all of whom filed Monday in Federal Court, include The Franciscan University of Steubenville and the Michigan Catholic Conference, et al., in Columbus, Ohio; The Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas, in Dallas; The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, the Catholic Health Care System, et al., in Brooklyn; The Roman Catholic Dioceses of Joliet and Springfield, Ill., in Chicago; and University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind.
     “This lawsuit is about one of America’s most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one’s religion without government interference,” according to the D.C. complaint. “It is not about whether people have a right to abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception. Those services are freely available in the United States, and nothing prevents the government itself from making them more widely available. Here, however, the government seeks to require plaintiffs – all Catholic entities – to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs by providing, paying for, and/or facilitating access to those services. American history and tradition, embodied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (‘RFRA’), safeguard religious entities from such overbearing and oppressive governmental action. Plaintiffs therefore seek relief in this court to protect this most fundamental of American rights.”
     The plaintiffs, Catholic entities that provide educational, spiritual and social services to Catholics and non-Catholics through their schools and charitable programs, claim the federal mandate forces them to ignore church teachings and violates their religious freedom.
     The mandate, which is part of President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, requires providers of group health insurance to cover preventive care for women, including certain contraception and sterilization services, without a co-pay.
     “Defendants have promulgated various rules (collectively, ‘the U.S. government mandate’) that force plaintiffs to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs,” the groups claim. “Under the U.S. government mandate, many Catholic and other religious organizations are required to provide health plans to their employees that include and/or facilitate coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception, in violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
     The groups claim “the government has crafted a narrow exemption to this mandate for certain ‘religious employers'” such as churches, mosques and other places of worship, but failed to exempt religiously affiliated groups such as hospitals and schools.
     They say the narrow exemption subjects them to “an intrusive and misguided governmental investigation” into their mission and forces them to exclude non-Catholics from services, assistance and employment.
     “Thus, in order to safeguard their religious freedoms, religious employers must plead with the government for a determination that they are sufficiently ‘religious,'” according to the complaint.
     The groups claim that most of them are not qualified as “religious employers” under the exemption, which applies only to entities serving and employing people of the same denomination.
     “Consequently, to even attempt to qualify as a ‘religious employer,’ these plaintiffs may be required to stop providing educational opportunities to non-Catholics, stop serving non-Catholics, and fire non-Catholic employees – actions that would betray their religious commitment to serving all in need without regard to religion and undermine the Church’s vaunted tradition of service to others,” the complaint states. “Such a definition means that before extending services, Catholic organizations would have to stop saying, ‘are you hungry?’ and say instead, ‘are you Catholic?'”
     Though the government this year changed the rules so that religiously affiliated employers could shift the requirement for contraceptive coverage onto their insurance companies, some plaintiffs, which operate self-insured health plans, claim the compromise does not exempt them from offering objectionable services.
     They claim the mandate violates the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other laws.
     They want the government enjoined from enforcing the mandate.
     Lead counsel in the D.C. complaint is Stephen Brogan with Jones Day.

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